Three high-profile species head toward federal protection

Posted: Jun 23, 2017

Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a work plan to review and to address the needs of over 250 candidate species and decide if they should be elevated to the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. The plan, which outlines the work to be done over the next six years, comes out of a 2011 settlement between the agency and environmental groups. The hope is that listing determinations and critical habitat designations (which sometimes took decades) will be accelerated and litigation will be avoided.

Here are three of the first species to be put through the paces, all controversial with public comment opportunities currently open.

Gunnison sage-grouse

In the next several weeks, the arrival of spring on the sagebrush steppe of Colorado and Utah will be marked by the guttural call and plucky strut of male Gunnison sage-grouse. This large, ground-nesting bird known for its charismatic courtship displays, were once found in large swaths of four Western states. Today they stick to the sagebrush-covered ridges and valleys of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Ninety-seven percent of its potential historic range has been destroyed, degraded or fragmented primarily by residential and commercial development and grazing, energy development, climate change and invasive species.

Because fewer than 5,000 breeding birds now remain in seven separate populations in SW Colorado and SE Utah, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). The agency has also identified 1.7 million acres to be designated as critical habitat for the species. The area identified as essential to the survival of the bird includes seven units in Chaffee, Delta, Dolores, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray, Saguache, and San Miguel Counties in Colorado, and in Grand and San Juan Counties in Utah.

Opposition to the designation has risen among ranchers in southern Colorado who fear critical habitat will affect their property rights. According to the FWS, “The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. Such designation does not allow the government or public to access private lands. Such designation does not require implementation of restoration, recovery, or enhancement measures by non-Federal landowners.” It does, however, require landowners to avoid destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat. The agency is accepting public comment on the Gunnison sage-grouse status and critical habitat designation through March 12.

Lesser prairie-chicken

Another flashy Western bird is up for ESA protection. This one is the lesser prairie-chicken, a grassland and sand sagebrush dweller in five states, including southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico. The FWS wants the stout, feather-footed bird designated as “threatened” due to habitat lost and fragmented by agriculture, energy (wind and petroleum) development and invasive plants.

The lesser prairie-chicken currently occupies an estimated 16 percent of its historic range, most of which is currently private land. It requires large areas of intact grassland and shrubland to sustain its population. Unlike the sage-grouse, the agency says critical habitat for the prairie-chicken is prudent but not currently determinable. In addition to feedback on the ESA listing the FWS is, however, accepting comments through March 11 about which areas would be appropriate as critical habitat, and which would not.

There is vociferous resistance to labeling the bird “threatened,” particularly from oil and gas outfits, which are concerned that all industries operating within an 18 million-acre area could potentially be affected. Before escalating the protection of the prairie-chicken to the federal level, they want more effort put into state-based conservation plans, similar to those that allowed the dunes sagebrush lizard to dodge an endangered designation last year.

But for that hope to become reality, landowners will have to step up their game. “We are encouraged by current multi-state efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat, but more work needs to be done to reverse its decline,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “Similar to what state and federal partners in this region accomplished when the dunes sagebrush lizard was proposed, we must re-double our important work to identify solutions that provide for the long-term conservation of the species and also help working families remain on the land they have stewarded for generations,” he said.

Private landowners have several options for voluntary conservation including the Working Lands for Wildlife initiatives, which provide funding and technical assistance, and Candidate Conservation Agreements which also monitor effectiveness and exempt landowners from further action if a species gains an ESA listing. Such agreements have gained major traction in the past year or so.

Wolverine

The third species up for federal protection has been thrice-thwarted from gaining such status. Its intense growl, long claws and general ferocity gained the wolverine the nickname “mountain devil” but, as it turns out, it’s not tough enough to withstand climate change.

These bear-looking weasels, which can weigh as much as 40 pounds, favor remote and inhospitable terrain. Females need at least five feet of snow to carve out natal dens to birth their cubs—a tall order in a warming world. The FWS is proposing to protect the mammal as “threatened” in the Lower 48 because “climate warming over the next century is likely to significantly reduce wolverine habitat, to the point where persistence of wolverines…without intervention, is in doubt.”

Some who fear economic repercussions have criticized the FWS for what seems like a preemptive move to prevent the wolverine’s extinction, and for citing climate change as the cause of its imminent demise. But to the consternation of conservationists the FWS has made it clear, as it did with the polar bear (a Bush ruling upheld this week by the Obama administration), that the listing would not be used to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Wolverine travel long distances and require large home ranges. There are currently 250 to 300 of them in Washington’s North Cascades and the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. Singular wolverines have moved into some of their historic range in Colorado and California but have yet to breed there.

Because of this recent movement, the FWS is also proposing to establish a “nonessential experimental population area” in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, northern New Mexico and southern Wyoming. The FWS says reintroduction in these areas is biologically feasible and will promote the species' conservation. The ski and agriculture industries have expressed concern that reintroduction threatens their own viability.

The FWS has said, “…Human activities in wolverine habitat such as snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, and land management activities like timber harvest and infrastructure development, which do not constitute threats to the species, would not be prohibited or regulated.”

The agency has not yet made a determination on whether establishing critical habitat for wolverines is prudent. They are accepting comments on federal protection for the wolverine through May 6.

~Heather Hansen

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